It is hard to believe that in a year of boxing as sclerotic as 2014 that a fight like Saul “Canelo” Alvarez vs. Erislandy Lara is happening Saturday. Simple, absolutely fundamental building blocks of a functioning sport like “the ability to make any kind of worthwhile match whatsoever” have been toppled in one thunderclap after another, replaced by a web of lawsuits — between fighters and promoters, between promoters and other promoters, between officials at the same promotional company — and other entanglements that are so thoroughly knotted as to defy comprehension.
Yet amid all that we have Alvarez-Lara anyway; it would be one of the best fights in any recent year, let alone 2014. Somehow, something pure is happening in boxing with this match-up, producing a grade that would do Walter White proud, and it’s the equivalent to him producing meth in some filthy dungeon rather than the sterile, perfect factory given to him by Gus Fring.
Canelo, the #1 contender at junior middleweight, is facing the #2 contender in the division despite having zero need for him. The young red-headed Mexican is a sensation who established some pay-per-view bona fides on Showtime first as a B-side to Floyd Mayweather and then as an A-side to Alfredo Angulo. He could have taken on a far less dangerous opponent in his third Showtime PPV headliner and maybe even made more money doing it, so devoid of a fan base is his Cuban opponent. The purity is its own selling point, of course; there is something to be said for the best facing the best in what is, after all, a sport. (The word “purity” is not used here in the sense it often is in boxing, by the way, as a pejorative as someone who enjoys fancy boxers or as a source of pride in same.)
Oscar De La Hoya’s prized asset in today’s Game of Thrones amongst rival boxing factions is Canelo, and he seems to be breeding him in his own image — handsome, but with a warrior instinct to prove himself against the best that contradicts the boyish good looks. If Alvarez can beat the likes of Lara, or at least maintain his marketability should he lose, it’ll be a moral victory for doing things the right way in an environment where everything is going wrong.
That is not to set up Lara as the bad guy, or anything like it. Certainly, in part, he cajoled his way into a big money fight with Canelo via heaped hills of trash talk, but there are few paths to big money fights for occasionally boring yet highly capable boxers with no indigenous fan demographic. Trash talk isn’t much of a thing to begrudge in pugilism, either. And there is an uplifting element of him getting the fight. He had to flee Cuba — the second time was the charm on defection attempts — to chase his American dream (“American Dream” being his quizzical nickname) and now he’s on the cusp of making it come true. Maybe, with the $1 million purse he’ll earn, he’s more or less already done so.
Canelo vs. Lara has the air of a 50-50 fight, even if most experts tilt toward Canelo. Lara is physically talented — speed, power — and has the schooling of Cuba’s famed amateur program to inform his southpaw trickery. A major knock on his chances against Canelo has been his inconsistency; Lara can, from one fight to the next, look like Mayweather’s worst nightmare and then like someone hanging by the skin of his teeth. Against the skillful Austin Trout, Lara was superb, almost perfect. Against the lumbering Angulo, he got decked twice. Styles make fights, as they say, and Angulo’s renewed training dedication vs. Trout’s declining devotion could have played a role in the divide, except Lara has shown inconsistency throughout his whole career. But that should probably be off the table for this weekend. If ever Lara was going to have supreme focus, it would be now.
Overall, he brings his straight left to the ring as his finest weapon. His right hook can be looping or short and compact. He likes single shots more than combinations, but when he opens up he can get a crowd gasping. His jab is more absent than you expect of boxer-types and his body attack is non-existent, and while his defense is by and large good, he has some flaws there. His legs are good but he’s easily trapped along the ropes, where he’s a good counterpuncher but not an elite one capable of getting away with that a la James Toney or Mayweather. Lara was especially vulnerable against Angulo to a body shot followed by a head punch, a combination which accounted for both his knockdowns.
Canelo has evolved considerably since he first burst onto the U.S. scene, and even in his loss to Mayweather might have been given him a sense of what not to do. No longer is he the slow welterweight who got knocked down by Jose Cotto, of all people. At junior middleweight, he’s a quick-fisted, sturdy boxer-puncher. His defense has gotten particularly good, too, not that you’d know it from the Mayweather outing. Too often, he stood in front of Mayweather, unsure what to do, stung into inaction by counters, more than likely. He took more shots while waiting than attacking, however. Nonetheless, against sub-Mayweather fighters (read: everybody) he has been quite impressive. The Trout fight was closer than the scorecards suggested, but it’s not as if Trout made a ton of contact. And Trout by that point had proved himself a pretty smart boxer. Angulo hardly touched Canelo with anything clean, despite his volume. Offensively, he’s a combination punch artist on a high order, putting together strong punches with a lot of leverage. His jab is of the straight and punishing variety. He does get caught reaching sometimes, though, a side effect of not having the same reach as some of his foes. That will be in play here — Alvarez will be at a 5″ disadvantage.
The way Lara wins is by making Canelo skittish early, using his reach to counter and keep him from charging in. That means Lara needs to hurt Canelo, something we haven’t seen happen to the young Mexican in a while. Is Lara a harder puncher than the version of Angulo Canelo fought? Yes. But Lara can’t rest merely on keeping Canelo away from him. He’ll need to win rounds definitively. He might have influential adviser Al Haymon in his corner, but it’s Golden Boy’s show and Canelo will be the crowd favorite, which could make a decision victory in a close fight a, well, reach.
Canelo will be facing a better version of Trout, and while that fight was close, Canelo has grown since then and probably took his foot off the gas once he knew he was winning thanks to open scoring. Against Angulo, Canelo appeared to have figured out his identity. Oh, he has a notion that he’s a pretty boxer still, but he subverted that impulse to lay a whooping on Angulo. Canelo on the attack from the start, un-dissuaded by Lara’s counters, is a rough, rough night for the Cuban. That’s the call here: a rough night that ends with Lara on the canvas for the evening by the late rounds.